I decided to reread The Black Ice Score, a relatively crappy Parker novel, in
the wake of having read the first Dortmunder novel, The Hot Rock. According to author Donald E. Westlake, The Hot Rock came about when a Parker
novel went awry: Parker is anything but a comedic character, and Westlake found
that he was writing Parker into a comedy. Thus, he rewrote the novel with a new
protagonist, Dortmunder, and that novel became The Hot Rock. I repeated this oft-told story in my review of The Hot Rock, prompting a friend to ask
what I made of the existence of The Black
Ice Score, whose premise is eerily similar to The Hot Rock. So I decided to reread The Black Ice Score and think it over.
The Black Ice Score
was first published in 1968; The Hot Rock was
first published in 1970. Both novels are set in New York. Both novels center
around factions from small African nations who compete for ownership of
valuable jewels—an emerald and diamonds, respectively. In both novels, and African faction hires professional American criminals to wrest the jewel(s) from the competing
faction. So what led Westlake to publish such similar novels so close together?
If Westlake’s story of converting the botched Parker novel into the first
Dortmunder novel is true, then this would seem to be the logical sequence of events:
1. Westlake begins writing a Parker novel, but he realizes that the tone is hopelessly wrong, so he stops.
2. Westlake starts the Parker novel over again, maintaining
the proper tone this time, and the result is The Black Ice Score, published in 1968.
3. Westlake, a highly efficient professional writer, hates
to waste anything. He still has the partially (how much?) completed manuscript
from #1, and he wants to do something with it. Therefore, he reworks it into The Hot Rock, published in 1970.
Westlake probably thought it unlikely readers would notice
(or care) about the similarities between Richard Stark’s The Black Ice Score and Donald E. Westlake’s The Hot Rock, so why not? It’s hard to imagine, however, that he
wasn’t asked about this at some point, so if anyone knows anything more, I
would be delighted to hear it.
A footnote: For a Parker fan, the most remarkable moment in The Hot Rock comes in passing, when one
of the professional American thieves, Alan Greenwood, mentions that his current
assumed name is “Grofield.” Alan Grofield, of course, is one of Parker’s
sometime partners, first appearing in The
Score in 1964. So maybe when the abandoned Parker novel became The Hot Rock, Alan Grofield was
transformed into Alan Greenwood? I didn’t pay attention to the initials of the
other thieves in The Hot Rock, but
perhaps they correspond to characters in the Parker novels as well?
I remember that the fresh earth beside the grave was brown and wet, and that the black coffin was shiny in the sun. I remember that I did not cry, but just stood there, even when the men with the spades went away, and then, after that, I do not remember all the things I did that day. Steve Fisher I Wake Up Screaming 1941
After the Great Parker Hiatus, Ronald Starlake restarted the series with a sequence of linked titles: Comeback, Backflash, Flashfire, Firebreak, and Breakout. Of these five, only Breakout (one of my favorite Parker novels) is distinct in my mind; the others blur together, much as Starklake’s titles suggest that he intended. Thus, when the movie Parker was announced as an adaptation of Flashfire, I couldn’t exactly remember which novel that was, but I chose not to worry about it. I wanted to see the movie on its own terms, so I decided against a pre-screening Flashfire refresher course. Then I went to see Parker, and, much to my surprise, at no point during the movie could I remember anything about Flashfire. The experience was both perplexing and alarming: Is this really an adaptation of a novel that I have read? And, more urgently, am I slipping into some sort of dementia?
For me, the nicest thing about writing these reviews is that I can use them as crutch for remembering what I have read. Therefore, immediately after Parker I went to read my review of Flashfire, and I discovered, to my complete and utter relief and joy, that I had not read it! I had made this mistake because of those dastardly similar titles in combination with my mistaken belief that I owned all of the Parker novels, when in fact I owned all of them but Flashfire. When Flashfire came to the top of the list, I couldn’t read what I didn’t own, so I mistakenly read Firebreak instead. Never have I been happier to be old and easily confused! Only a few weeks ago, I finished the last Parker novel, Dirty Money, and I mourned. But then! lo! a miracle! A new Parker novel (to me, at least!) all but dropped from the heavens!
But what a strange circumstance for reading my (actual) last Parker novel, with Jason Statham and Jennifer Lopez swimming around in my head. Not once while reading Flashfire did I see Jason Statham’s face, but Jennifer Lopez was Leslie Mackenzie. There was nothing I could do about that. Oh, well. The most significant effect that seeing Parker had on my reading of Flashfire is this: Flashfire became a remarkable demonstration that the power of the Parker novels is in the prose, not the plots. The plots, of course, are often brilliant, but while reading Flashfire it was easy to what the movie is missing. You get some of Starklake’s sociopathically stripped language in the dialogue, but where you need it most is in the action, which is precisely where Parker can’t give it to you. So, instead, they give you Parker hanging from a balcony with a knife stabbed completely through his hand—and it’s just not as good. Grade: B-
A: Excellent. I intend to read it again. B: Good. I might read it again. C: So-so. I didn't mind reading it. D: Bad. I resented reading it. F: Atrocious. I finished it only because I'm compulsive that way.